Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Interiors, Exteriors, and the Veiling of Cupid's Martyrs: Gendered Space in the Assembly of Ladies

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Interiors, Exteriors, and the Veiling of Cupid's Martyrs: Gendered Space in the Assembly of Ladies

Article excerpt

The Assembly of Ladies is an anonymous fifteenth-century secular love poem. (1) It adheres closely to conventional poetic structures but throws these conventions into relief as it presents its narrative from a woman's point of view, a rare occurrence for poetry of this period. (2) The immediate effect of a female narrator is to draw attention to the way gender is presented within the poem, and subsequently gender becomes a defining issue throughout the poem. (3) While gender is elevated as a feature of the poem by a number of different methods, here in this article the focus will be on one of those methods: the way the poem uses gendered space to convey meaning. Both the text and the narrative present the reader with geographical locations, which are specifically gendered to cause the reader to draw a correlation between the literary and social conventions that govern the poem. The result of this correlation indicates that, as the narrator is marginalized from the geographic locations, so, too, is the female voice marginalized from the literary process. (4)

A synopsis of the poem follows. The narrative begins in September with the narrator wandering aimlessly through a garden maze with her companions. Her companions are four ladies, with the narrator describing herself as "I, the fifth, simplest of all" (7), and four gentlewomen. As an afterthought, the narrator mentions that they are also accompanied by a number of knights and squires, one of whom asks the narrator why she is in the maze. She is rather evasive in her answer, but the inquisitive knight pressures her to explain more. Eventually she relents and begins her tale, which is the recounting of a dream that took place on a previous occasion in the same maze. In her account, the narrator, the four ladies, and the four gentlewomen negotiate their way through the maze on a spring afternoon. The narrator reaches the center of the maze before her companions, and sits down to wait for them. On falling asleep, she dreams of a woman who summons the narrator and her companions to an all-female assembly to be held by Lady Loiaulte at her castle Pleasaunt Regarde. It is a long journey and the narrator-dreamer will have to leave immediately, but she is concerned about her companions, who have not yet arrived. Reassured that they will be provided with a guide, however, she sets off with Perseveraunce as her own guide, and journeys for most of the day before arriving at a "hospital." Here she is met by a gentlewoman who provides her with the appropriate attire for an audience with Lady Loiaulte: a blue dress, although the narrator refuses to wear the additional devise and motto. She arrives at Pleasaunt Regarde and awaits the arrival of her companions. When they have all arrived and are likewise in blue, they attend the court of Lady Loiaulte, where they each present a bill of complaint against unfaithful lovers. Lady Loiaulte defers her judgment on the bills until another date, and the company of women leaves, content to have been heard. The narrator-dreamer awakens from her dream and writes the events down for posterity. Back in the opening scene, the inquisitive knight commends her on the tale and asks what she will call it. Her reply: "La Semble des Dames" (752).

Jane Chance suggests that the narrator of The Assembly of Ladies "lacks being, autonomy, individuality." (5) Chance's idea can be seen as a variation of Alexandra Barratt's suggestion that the narrator of the poem is isolated and emotionally removed from her companions, that is, she does not share in the sense of belonging to the company of women. (6) This article will focus on the episode in the poem in which the narrator and her companions arrive at Pleasaunt Regarde and interact with its inhabitants. I will argue that the narrator of The Assembly of Ladies not only lacks a sense of individuality and is isolated from her companions as suggested by Chance and Barratt, but that she can, in fact, be seen as signifying the female voice in response to the masculine architecture of Pleasaunt Regarde. …

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